Thursday, May 29, 2014

Not magic

By now you've probably all read the NYT Magazine piece on the University of Texas's efforts to increase retention among their poorer and first-generation students--but if you haven't, go read it now. Although some of UT's strategies involve additional academic support (in the form of smaller section sizes, peer mentors, and access to tutoring), the most mind-blowing part of the article is the evidence that even incredibly small interventions can have statistically significant results.

Several slightly different studies, conducted at different colleges and universities, show that just 30 minutes, at the beginning of a student's college career, can be enough to keep at-risk students enrolled. In one series of studies, students were assigned to read letters from current upperclassmen that described their own feelings of not belonging in their freshman year--and then how they settled in and eventually realized that everyone feels that way. In another series of studies, students were assigned a short article that laid out the scientific evidence against a static theory of intelligence (i.e., arguing that practice is more important than initial aptitude). In both cases, the students were asked to read the essay and then summarize it in their own words, as if conveying it to another incoming student. Even without any follow-up or any further interventions, their drop-out rates plummeted--sometimes by more than 50%.

(Interestingly, there was no effect on students from more prosperous backgrounds. The theory is that although all students can suffer from feelings of not belonging--or can have their confidence shaken by an early academic failure--wealthier students are more likely to know or to hear from family members that this is normal and will pass. Students without that kind of support are in greater danger of assuming they really don't belong in college.)

What I love about this is that we're not talking about heroic interventions and we're not imagining teachers as magical saviors. These are students who are perfectly capable of succeeding but who benefit from a little more affirmation that they can succeed; they still have to bust ass and live through some self-doubt and some rough patches. I also like the fact that it validates what I've come to do in my own classes, which is to emphasize that everything I teach involves learned (and learnable) skills. I frequently say things like, "understanding poetry isn't magic" and "no one is born knowing how to write a literary-critical essay."

But here's the thing: I didn't develop this approach as a specific response to the RU student population; I started saying similar things when I was teaching students at my Ivy alma mater. Whether it's first-generation college students or tightly-wound overachievers, most students benefit from being told, explicitly, that a grade on an assignment is not a verdict on their overall performance, their potential, or their worth as a person--but just a measure of how close they are to mastering a single discrete task.

I do a little more of this now than I used to, but frankly, I wish someone had told me these things in college. I wasn't taught poetry well. I wasn't told what component skills went into writing an essay. And after a year or so I assumed I'd just found my level in the B+/A- range: that's just who I was and how smart I was, and it probably wasn't going to change.

The thing is, as a teacher, you never know who most needs a word of encouragement or affirmation. You don't know each student's background, you don't know their mental state. And if every little helps. . . well, it's easy enough to offer.


sophylou said...

I just went to the Berks, where I got to see the professor from college who did this for me. College was very difficult for me -- I wasn't AT ALL prepared for my supercompetitive SLAC by my high school (which, I discovered recently, was profiled in a 1983 documentary called "High Schools"-- as an example of a significantly underperforming suburban high school, yay!), and I dealt with this by attaching myself to an equally unprepared and controlly/abusive boyfriend.

My senior year, when I was suppressing a whole lot of stuff, my women's religious history professor noticed that I wasn't talking in class and encouraged me to speak up (based on my writing, I think). She was the one who encouraged me to go to grad school. I've never forgotten what an impact her being able to see me and to help me talk in class had on me. I kept her in mind when I was teaching and trying to help quiet kids feel safer with talking/participation.

We'd encountered each other before, but this time I got to tell her what had been going on that had made me sooooo quiet, and to thank her for the encouragement. Not just for helping me talk, but also for encouraging me to think about grad school as an option, because going away to grad school was how I finally left the boyfriend.

It's not magic. It's paying attention, and it's understanding that skills can be taught, and learned. I've started to emphasize this as a librarian too -- I really dislike having "magic!" attributed to me, when really, doing research etc. is a set of skills. Everyone starts somewhere, everyone can learn them.

Bardiac said...

This is a great reminder!

I heard a talk recently about responding to student writing, and you know the usual note at the end of the essay, well in addition to that, they added a comment about how the standards are high and the instructor has confidence that the student could meet those expectations (they did that randomly for groups of comp students, adding a set statement), and it apparently made a huge difference for at risk students, and not much for less at risk students. Interesting stuff!

Miss Self-Important said...

But, the article also argues for the magical side of this intervention: if you tell students that this is what you're doing to them, it doesn't work anymore. That is, if you say, "You are statistically likely to fail out of college, so I have singled you out for this positive thought therapy and extra-attention intervention to prevent that," they're not going to be moved. And who would be if they thought they were just being patted on the head by a mechanical device programmed to pat sad children? You do have to think that the people reassuring you are doing it because they personally like and care about you, they think you personally have some untapped potential, not because it's their job to appear this way. So teaching still appears to students as magic, even if there a perfectly rational explanation behind it. I would be wary of trying to banish all the magic from pedagogy.

Flavia said...


No, I don't think you have to believe that the people reassuring you personally care about you; if so, the read-the-essay assignment (which everyone does or at least thinks everyone is doing) would not have the effect it does. I say these things to all my classes--from the front of the room--although I also say it one-on-one with students who seek me out for help. And I absolutely believe that a certain amount of demystification is essential.

But you're right that this doesn't take all the magic away, nor could it. What happens in the classroom or in an individual brain--or an individual essay, wrestled with over hours or days or weeks--is still a weird and semi-magical thing, and no one can explain it or pinpoint what exactly causes someone to suddenly rise to a higher level of understanding. The demystification is simply about saying: if you keep working, it will get easier. Eventually, you'll be able to do this thing. Your classmates don't have some secret aptitude that you're lacking--they've just done this before or been doing it longer. Have faith.

Flavia said...


What a nice story.


I love that. I've taken to saying something similar to my students: that I grade essays stringently, because I consider them the gold standard of what an English major should be able to do--but that I know they're at different stages in their college careers and in their development as writers; that improvement takes place over a long time scale; and that I deliberately structure my assignments so that students who aren't yet perfect writers can demonstrate their mastery of the component skills and to get credit for their smart observations, their hard work, and their progress.

sophylou said...

"The demystification is simply about saying: if you keep working, it will get easier. Eventually, you'll be able to do this thing. Your classmates don't have some secret aptitude that you're lacking--they've just done this before or been doing it longer. Have faith."

This is so true, and the UT story had me in tears at points because I so could have used that kind of comment in college. I came from the kind of high school where I hadn't had to do any real homework, and I never really stopped feeling confused and overwhelmed, even in intro courses. Just to have someone tell me I had good things to say was a big deal.

A semester or two ago, I taught an instruction for a history professor who specializes in legal history, and we switched off so that he could demo the legal-history databases. When he was done, I spontaneously said something along the lines of how he'd gotten to be so skilled with these particular databases, more than I was, because he used them A LOT -- and it was a matter of using/playing with the database, asking it questions (what does THIS feature do?), and that they could and would develop those skills with practice. The TA told me afterwards that the students (and she) really needed to hear that, since they were finding the professor intimidating. --- I am trying to push my faculty to let me do more hands-on "let's practice searching etc. with THIS tool" rather than just an overview of "here are the databases we have" etc.... for exactly these reasons.

Daisy Martin and Sam Wineburg have a brilliant article here on using videos of historians interpreting primary sources out loud, to demonstrate interpretation skills... except the cool thing is, the historians are interpreting sources in areas outside of their expertise. So students can see the process/skills involved.

Unknown said...

Amen, sister.